Transit Drive-In to be sold to Dipson Theatres, after 65 years of Cohen family ownership

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The Transit Drive-In has been a safe and popular destination for family entertainment during Covid-19, but the uncertainty and sudden loss of life the pandemic has brought led third-generation owner Rick Cohen to a major life decision.

After 65 years of Cohen family ownership, and 35 years in which he worked as manager and later sole owner, Cohen has reached an agreement to sell the Lockport drive-in to Dipson Theatres, which plans to continue operating it as a drive-in.

Dipson began running the theater in March under a management agreement, with Cohen assisting the staff during the transition. The sale is expected to close in late spring or early summer. Cohen would not disclose the terms of the sale.

“I’ve had friends my age drop dead of a heart attack,” Cohen said. “They worked and worked and worked, and one day they were gone. After the last two years of Covid, I decided I don’t want to work until I’m no longer able to work, and I want to be able to enjoy some quality retirement time.”

The seasonal, nighttime theater business has always been a part of the 54-year-old Cohen’s life. He’s also a drive-in movie theater aficionado who visited and documented some 184 current and former drive-in sites throughout New York State between 2007 and 2010.

While Cohen said he could have sold the Transit to out-of-town theater companies, he wanted to see if a local operator was interested first. He attended Williamsville East High School with Michael Clement, owner of Dipson Theatres, and knew of his interest in the business if it ever became available.

The deal was set in motion after one phone call last October, Cohen said.

“I wanted to make sure I left the drive-in in good hands, with people who had experience in the theater business and cared about the value of the drive-in to the community, and wanted to continue the tradition,” Cohen said. “As long as the public supports it, the operators will be happy to to keep it going indefinitely.”

The Transit will be the eighth theater under Dipson’s ownership and management.

“I think Rick has done a fabulous job in building the business and operating the drive-in, and we look forward to working with him to make sure the transition is as seamless as possible,” Clement said. “The drive-in is celebrating its 70th year and Dipson, which is locally owned and operated, is celebrating its 83rd year.”

Clement said he is planning some upgrades, including advanced technology for the refreshment stand’s kitchen that will reduce wait times for pizza and other traditional food items, and refreshing the miniature golf course and playground.

A weekend flea market or farmers market are under consideration, along with special programming.

Irving Cohen, Rick’s grandfather, bought the drive-in at 6655 S. Transit Road in 1957, five years after it opened. Drive-ins were at the height of their popularity. The industry experienced its peak year in 1958, when there were 4,063 theaters.

Macy Cohen, Rick’s father, became general manager in 1963 and owner in 1996. Rick began managing the theater in 1987, and took over ownership in 2007 after his father died.

The Transit, which had one screen for its first 42 years, added a second in 1994, a third in 1996, a fourth in 2001 and a fifth in 2016. A new snack bar opened in 2012.

In 2020, Cohen debuted a $225,000 laser projector for screen one which, he said, “had four times the brightness, four times the resolution and four times the cost.”

The Transit has been an exception to an industry hit hard for decades by shifting cultural interests and skyrocketing land values. More than two-thirds of the nation’s screen towers were toppled during the 1970s and ’80s, often replaced by big-box stores.

That trend has continued, though considerably slowed.

There were 305 drive-in theaters and 549 screens in October 2019, according to the United Drive-in Theater Association of America, a 92% drop from their peak. While the association no longer attempts to tally all of the nation’s drive-ins, Cohen tracks them state-by-state and said 304 are still operating.

LOCAL Covid-19 HICKEY (copy)

Cohen said he wasn’t going to allow the Transit to become another profitable theater supported by the community leveled for a big-box retailer. Fortunately, he said, the theater’s location on the outskirts of Lockport, Pendleton and Amherst lacks the density developers seek.

“Typically, the residential and commercial real estate keeps creeping up and before you know it, somebody wants to put something in that will generate more income,” Cohen said.

“There is something to be said about a quality of life that a drive-in provides a community,” he added.

Drive-ins, improbably, have found their moment during the pandemic.

The outdoor picture palaces’ built-in social distancing was made to order for Covid-19. People have gone to drive-ins to see movies, of course, but also to attend weddings, school graduations, live and prerecorded concerts, birthday parties, dance recitals, religious services and professional and corporate events.

“It definitely made us into the superstar of the summer,” Cohen said in September 2020. “There were days when I’d have to make appointments just to handle all the media requests.”

Another local drive-in up for sale

The Cohens are one of three longtime family-owned drive-in theaters in Western New York, but another family is also looking to leave the business.

The Sunset Drive-In in Middleport, owned by Mario and Denise Stornelli since 1994, but by the Stornelli family since 1950, has been put up for sale.

The outdoor theater in eastern Niagara County has been a popular family destination for people living in northern Niagara, Orleans and Genesee counties. A call to the Stornelli family to see if the theater will reopen this year was not returned.

The Silver Lake Twin Drive-In in Perry, owned by Rick Stefanon, has been in his family for 54 years.

Cohen, long a familiar sight whizzing about the blacktop at Transit Drive-In on his Segway, said he won’t miss the long weekend hours, which began at 10 a.m. and continued to 2 a.m. the next day during the nine months the theater is typically open, excluding December through February.

“I’ve had a lot of fun doing it,” Cohen said. “I’m looking forward to traveling and hiking and doing normal people things instead of working every weekend.”

Published by The Buffalo News

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